Did you ever watch the kid’s TV show “Zoom!?” Filmed in the Boston area, run on PBS, full of adorable children speaking in their own version of Pig Latin and making crafts and learning stuff. You probably loved it. I did. But as I was just reminded, there is a bittersweet side to that show for me. The fact is, I had a chance to be on it.
Let’s not over-state. My friend Hayley was on the show as a younger child, and last night I met someone who was on the reboot of the show. There were people much cooler than I who actually were Zoom! cast members, and who now walk the streets like the rest of us, but with secret hearts full of snack recipes and primary colors. I, alas, I only auditioned for the show the once.
Set the stage. I’ve just begun middle school at the tender age of 10. My elementary school principal, Mr. Weinstock, mentions to a mother of a friend that some PBS head-hunters stopped by his office to put forward a casting call for the show, and he, no doubt remembering my star turn as The Elephant’s Child in the eponymous show in second grade, thought of me. I have three days to prepare for the audition. Finally, I think, my child-star turn has come. First this, then on to playing Matilda in “Matilda Two: Miss Trunchbull’s Revenge!”
The audition required the children to come in and sing a song or tell a story or a joke of our own devising. Simple. I got my parents up early on a Saturday to drive to the auditions, off the highway in Boston (it might have been Somerville). There were, of course, children standing in lines out the door. I was immediately nervous. Somehow I had expected a red carpet laid out for me, the wunderkind, the savior of public television. Instead, I wasn’t even the first one there by several hundred.
My first show-biz lesson was that auditioning for television is a lot of sitting and waiting and intimidating yourself by comparing yourself to everyone else there. I can’t imagine that I didn’t have a book, but even so, the surroundings were at once stimulating enough and boring enough to keep my attention in fits and starts. I went over my song in my head, confident enough that I had something that the other kids did not. I talked to my parents until I was called into a hallway and forced to leave the comfort of their presence. I sat on a hard, red, scoop-shaped chair in a darkened hall, one of five children. We would, we were told, go one by one into the studio and stand on a little “x.” We would look at the camera and say our names, and then we would perform our act, and then we would be on our way.
One by one, the children in front of me went in for their turns. I heard a little boy tell some kind of joke to which there was no reaction. There were the vague stylings of a song by a little curly-haired girl (I am making this up, I have no such memory of the children in front of me. Memoir fraud alert!). Finally, it was my turn.
I walked in slowly, gave my most winning smile to the camera, introduced myself, and began to sing a cappella.
Here’s the thing. This was in the era of the burgeoning popularity of boy bands, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears. All around us, there were pre-teens-verging-on-teens singing about love and loss in the most saccharine of terms. And that’s what I thought they wanted from me. The song I sang had lyrics on par with Justin Bieber’s “Baby” and used the title word about as many times. I can’t remember it now. I had never even held hands with a boy I liked. But here I was, tiny Laura, pouring my heart out about the non-existent person I loved for the cameras, without any synth or strings or Auto-Tuning.
I never got a callback.
A year or two later I saw an episode in which they revealed the auditions of some of the cast members.
Only one girl got in with a song.
It was about a caterpillar.
But so was mine, in a way. My song was about a caterpillar of a young girl, eager to metamorphose into a–
Oh, forget it. I sang a terrible song and didn’t get on public children’s television. Two roads diverged in a studio and I, I took the one less publicized; and that has made probably no difference.